Prime time has passed for newsmagazines


Television viewers are sending the networks a strong message during the early weeks of the 1994-1995 TV season: They've had enough of prime-time newsmagazines.

Every prime-time news program on the networks, from the venerable "60 Minutes" on CBS to the thrice-a-week "Dateline" on NBC, is reaching fewer viewers than it did a year ago.

Hourlong dramas, in contrast, are flourishing. NBC's "ER" is the hottest new show of the season, ABC's "NYPD Blue" had its highest rating ever last week and NBC's "Law and Order" is out-polling two news programs.

"The magical allure of the magazines, from the point of view of the TV programmer, has certainly faded," says Andrew Heyward, a CBS News vice president who formerly ran "48 Hours" and "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung."

Neal Shapiro, who is responsible for three hours of prime-time news a week as executive producer of "Dateline," says: "Conventional wisdom about the magazines is falling by the wayside."

The old conventional wisdom -- derived from the success of CBS' "48 Hours" and ABC's "PrimeTime Live" -- was that a quality magazine program that was left on the air for a few years was virtually guaranteed to work. What's more, from a business standpoint, magazine programs appeal to network executives because they cost less to produce than dramas or sitcoms and they are owned by the networks, as opposed to Hollywood studios.

As a result, the temptation to put more news programs on the air has been all but irresistible. As the comedian Fred Allen once quipped: "Imitation is the sincerest form of television."

The frenzy to develop newsmagazines grew so intense that it helped fuel last winter's costly bidding war for anchor Diane Sawyer of ABC's "PrimeTime Live."

NBC, at one point, wanted to make Ms. Sawyer the anchor of a four-night-a-week magazine show. But ABC re-signed her for a reported $7 million a year, figuring she was worth every nickel, if only because "PrimeTime Live" had become an unassailable hit.

Wrong. Ratings for "PrimeTime Live," which were shaky all summer, collapsed last month with the arrival of "ER." In the most recent Nielsen survey, for the week ending Sunday, "ER" was rated No. 4; "PrimeTime Live" was No. 45.

Not even Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, expected "ER" to drive "PrimeTime" out of the time slot. "We're not surprised that 'ER' is doing well," Mr. Littlefield says. "We are pleasantly surprised that it's in the stratosphere."

ABC has beat a hasty retreat by announcing that "PrimeTime" will move to Wednesdays, a stronger night for ABC, in January. Replacing it on Thursdays will be "Day One," another magazine that has struggled to find a foothold.

It's not just "PrimeTime" that has faltered this fall, though. CBS' "48 Hours" and "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung" and NBC's "Dateline" have all been spotty performers.

Two weeks ago, for example, "Dateline" scored its highest ratings ever with a Tuesday night edition that finished No. 10 in the weekly Nielsens. The celebration was short-lived, though, as the following night's "Dateline" had only half as many viewers and finished No. 69.

What's happening? The new conventional wisdom is that with so many newsmagazines out there, viewer allegiance to any one program is weak. Mr. Shapiro, who runs "Dateline," says his ratings fluctuate, depending on what else is on. "News shows can beat mediocre entertainment, but they have a hard time beating outstanding entertainment. The audience loyalty isn't what it once was," he says.

With the exception of "60 Minutes" and "20/20," no magazine program is appointment TV -- unlike, say, "NYPD Blue" or "Seinfeld," which viewers hurry home for.

Even Victor Neufeld, the veteran executive producer of "20/20," says the competition for stories and viewers has become brutal. "We have strong name recognition and a strong niche," Mr. Neufeld says, "but I never take anything for granted. The day when I say we're on solid ground is the beginning of the end. It is a struggle for every viewer."

The sameness of the shows has also hurt them. Last week, both "Dateline" and ABC's "Turning Point" did stories about the dangers of eating contaminated meat. One Wednesday night, both "Dateline" and "48 Hours" did stories on jury selection for the O. J. Simpson trial.

"There don't seem to be enough compelling stories to carry all these newsmagazines," says David Poltrack, CBS' ratings and research czar. He says the Simpson trial has been "their blessing and their curse."

Perhaps the clearest evidence that the newsmagazines have fallen from favor is that, for the first time in recent memory, no network is developing any new ones.

Alan Wurtzel, the executive in charge of prime-time news programming for ABC, says bluntly: "The world doesn't need another magazine show."

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